Portable spas can go from visually pleasing to downright beautiful when placed in a wood deck.

The combination represents a significant design element in any backyard, and deserves the same attention given to inground pools and spas. Here, experts share five rules for designing and building a wood deck to complement the hot tub.

1. Think about flow

Many people see a hot tub with a wood deck as just something to be placed in the middle of the yard, with little thought to any aesthetic issues. But, regardless of the project’s scale, it is a design element meant to enhance the property.

With that in mind, it’s important to consider placement. Many designers put the hot tub as close to the home as possible, since this creates easy access and provides a little more shelter..

It’s a good idea to think about privacy as well. Scout the area to see if windows of neighboring homes or even other parts of the client’s property might allow unwelcome glimpses of private moments.

Finally, choose a material that makes sense with the property. For instance, you  may have a homeowner with a gray house who asks for dark brown woods for the deck. This may not blend well, in which case the professional should suggest something more fitting, i.e., a deck color that will better blend into the property.

2. Design to the tub

Some builders will come up with a design before the customer has even chosen the tub. This isn’t the ideal scenario. Knowing in advance which model will be used aids in selecting a color that matches the skirt and complements the shell.

It’s also easier to build that way.

Another key consideration is the access required around the tub for maintenance and repairs.

On many newer models, only one side needs to be accessed, since the equipment is placed together. But some of the newer deluxe amenities can complicate matters: Spas with waterfalls require access to the back-side for repairs, and units with effect lighting around the perimeter need all four sides to be reachable. 

This additional access means that, in most cases, some kind of removable “trap door” must be installed in the deck.

Design-wise, there are two ways to handle this entry-point. Professionals can make it blend into the design, with the fewest saw cuts possible, by continuing the door-boards in the same direction and pattern as the rest of the deck. The other approach does just the opposite, giving the trap door a separate treatment so that it doesn’t seem like an attempt was made to hide unsightly saw cuts. If the primary boards run along the deck’s length, for instance, those in the trap door can be set in the opposite direction, on a diagonal or even in a decorative pattern, making it appear as a design element.

To provide ample room, some designers place removable panels that extend back 2 feet around the entire perimeter of the spa, and give them a different aesthetic treatment. This allows for complete access while also giving the area an enhanced design opportunity.

In addition to allowing for future repairs, designers should also look at other ways to enhance convenience. For instance, check for the controller on older tubs. Though manufacturers now generally place the panels on the top, some used to locate them on the outside. If so, make sure customers can reach it.

Also, consider the cover lifter. To give it proper room to work, some builders create an extra 2-foot area where the lifter will be placed — usually the side closest to the house or other wall.

Then, discuss which seats the homeowners will use most often and in what direction they should face. No homeowner wants to sit in the seat with the best jets, only to be left facing the chimney.

3. Try creating elevations

While homeowners may initially want their hot tub to be sunken completely to mimic an inground spa, most professionals try to convince clients otherwise.

Placing the hot tub 15 to 18 inches above deck level adds visual interest and simplifies use. Ideally, the spa should be at a height where homeowners can easily sit down on the edge, turn around, and slip their feet in

And consider building the deck with multiple elevations. A higher level in back can make the area more visually interesting while giving users an easy place to set a towel, or add decorative touches like plants. Adding the step-ups for this requires room, however, so if the deck is less than 500 square feet, you may want to stick with one elevation.

4. Know your woods

Pressure-treated woods will last a long time, but many feel they aren’t very attractive. Most builders use this material for the structural elements under the surface; however, it can be stained and implemented on top for an ultra-durable and reasonably priced option.

When using this variety, know that only stainless-steel hardware should be used. Pressure-treated wood is copper-based, and selecting screws made of tin or other metals will create corrosion, since the dissimilar materials don’t interact well together.

When sawing pressure-treated wood for the structural elements, the exposed cuts should be sprayed with a wood preservative such as Copper Green to prevent rot in those spots.

Cedar and redwood are beautiful, mid-priced options that are relatively resistant to insects and rot. Imported hard woods are increasingly popular, but can pose some complications. For starters, beware of cheap treatments of the wood. For instance, some suppliers may try to sell boards that are only ¾-inch thick. Don’t settle. Use boards that are at least 1-1/16 inch thick. If the customer wants to invest in an exotic hardwood, they should buy something of high quality.

It’s also important to realize that these harder woods are more affected by moisture than other varieties. Boards should be sealed on all sides before they’re secured in place, and screws of at least 3 inches long should be used so that they can’t be pulled out if the wood warps or cups.

Additionally, there should be some kind of vapor barrier between the joists and decking.

You also should prepare to use more drill bits and saw blades, as these woods are harder on tools.

Composites and artificial wood are being used increasingly as well. Know that, unlike natural wood, they must be coated with a solid color and, once painted, will have to remain that color. They also are hotter to the touch than natural wood.

5. Allow for moisture

Though moisture is an unavoidable factor for any outdoor design element, its impact can be mitigated.

If the deck, or portions of it, will sit 18 inches or less off the ground, it will need proper ventilation. The closer to the ground the deck sits, the more moisture will evaporate from the soil to the bottom of the wood, posing a cupping problem.

Designers can address this by leaving the sides completely open, or including ventilation spots in the wood. Plants can be used to cover the sides so that natural air flows through.

Drainage also must be addressed. There should be as little water as possible pooling around the base of the deck or the hot tub. Ideally, this can be handled by sloping the ground away from the deck and hot tub. If that’s not possible, install drain pipes that will direct any runoff to a lower area. Some professionals will use either a large line — 6 inches or more — or two pipes, in case one gets clogged by debris. Finally, make sure clients understand that their decks will have to be resealed every one to two years for optimal longevity.